Tuesday, January 6, 2009

2008: The Year in Comics (1)

It's that time of the year, obviously. I’m starting a little later than I did last year, but hopefully I’ll still finish sooner.

Of course, the question whether 2008 was a particularly fantastic year for comics is still out there, and it probably won't be resolved for a while. Even though my focus has been pretty narrow, I’d like to think it wasn’t a terrible year for comics, at least, for whatever that’s worth. The number of books I’m going to recommend is smaller than last year’s (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4), but I suspect that’s mostly because I was probably a little too charitable back then, where some books are concerned – and because Warren Ellis, who showed up with four entries for 2007, had a rather less spectacular year in 2008. Also, I’m only including books that actually came out in 2008 this time around.

As usual, please not that the following is by no means a comprehensive list of noteworthy comics released throughout the year. At best, it's a comprehensive list of comics I read and think are worthy of my recommendation. Given that anything I bought and read before September is on the other side of the Atlantic right now, that’s a tricky enough proposition. As for what kinds of comics I read: It's the Anglo-American genre stuff, with few enough exceptions that I don’t feel comfortable including them here.*

Given my interest in critical standards of “greatness” and what deserves general recognition and what not, and so forth, I should also point out that “I liked it enough to recommend it” doesn’t mean “It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread and it deserves a place on any respectable Best-Comics-of-2008 list.” If the latter is more along the lines of what you’re looking for, then please save yourself the time of reading my list and go out and buy the hardcover collections of All Star Superman and Omega: The Unknown instead. Those I can vouch for, and they are, indeed, two of the greatest things since sliced bread, without which no serious Best-Comics-of-2008 list can claim to be comprehensive.

(Unfortunately, both titles are 5,000 miles away from me now, except for the final issue of All Star Superman, so I won’t have a lot to say about them any time soon.)

With that out of the way, here are some of the best pop comics I read in 2008.

* * *

Jason Aaron, Roland Boschi, et al. Punisher Max X-Mas Special. The Punisher kills criminals. No, really. This Christmas special is as good as any place to start this list, because it’s pretty much a blueprint on how to do this sort of thing – one-shot specials in general and Christmas specials in particular. The Punisher kills criminals, you see? That’s what it’s about, and Mr. Aaron knows how to twist that simple and inescapable truth into a thrilling, well-paced, appropriately bullet-riddled killer of a story. It’s got fantastic artwork, too. Mr. Boschi doesn’t just draw the best Punisher this side of Steve Dillon, he’s also got a unique style and an incredible talent for storytelling – I have no doubt that we’re going to see a lot more of his work in 2009. This isn’t a profound comic by any stretch, but it’s by people who have a refreshingly good sense of what their story is and how to best get it across. And don’t forget: The Punisher kills criminals. (Marvel Comics/Max Comics, one-shot)

* * *

Jason Aaron, Roland Boschi, Tan Eng Huat, José Villarrubia, et al. Ghost Rider. My familiarity with the Ghost Rider begins and ends with his guest appearances in other titles, so I’m not sure how much of the current take, which involves a whole dynasty of Ghost Riders and Caretakers spread out all over the world, is Jason Aaron’s doing. What I can say with certainty, though, is that it’s a heck of a comic. At its core, the book is a conflict between Ghost Riders Johnny Blaze and Daniel Ketch, who, as it turns out, are brothers. But more importantly, it’s a globe-spanning hell ride of Biblical proportions, involving hand-munching cannibals, head-crunching hillbillies in divine employ, apocalyptic rogue angels besieging the gates of heaven, nunchuk-carrying warrior nuns and various people on motorcycles with leather jackets and flaming skulls deploying purgatory penance stares against another, all with the kind of piss ’n’ vinegar I’m sure most of Mr. Aaron’s colleagues would gleefully trade their souls for – and throw in their grandmothers, too, just for laughs. While infernally impressive artist Roland Boschi left the book after only four issues, it’s still in very good hands with Tan Eng Huat and color mage José Villarrubia. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, et al. Captain America. The conventional wisdom among fans and industry observers is that it’s only a matter of time before Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s original Captain America, Steve Rogers, who was shot dead in a 2007 issue of this title, will be revived by Marvel. They’re right, of course, but that will be Marvel’s loss. The new Captain America, Rogers’ former partner James “Bucky” Barnes, who was reintroduced by Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting four years ago and has been meticulously built up by them ever since, holds immeasurably more fascination and potential as a character than Steve Rogers ever did. Easily the most skilled, disciplined and consistent pop writer in American comics at present, Mr. Brubaker succeeds where generations of Marvel writers before him have failed: He’s reinvented Captain America as a viable, relevant property that finally deserves the iconic standing it has been granted by comics fans since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first serious attempt to dust it off more than forty years ago. This Captain America has his roots in the Cold War and the September 11 attacks as much as in World War II, and he owes as much to Sir Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum and the makers of TV’s 24 as to those wacky old Kirby comics. Unlike James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, however, James Barnes takes the fight out in the open: He’s the first bona fide national pop-cultural icon stepping up to save the United States from the global threats of a new age. This Captain America, in other words, has the Red, White and Blue, and he also has legs. If Marvel are smart, the only place you’ll ever see Steve Rogers again are World War II flashbacks. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Criminal. “I’m all alone,” the protagonist thinks in the last panel of the last Criminal story of 2008. Of course, he’s not kidding. And of course, the fact that he’s alone is the very least of his problems. It’s also the one that gets him in the end, however. Because that, of course, is the way it goes in Criminal. The phrase “grim and gritty” is terribly worn out, but here, it fits. The characters and settings in Criminal are grim and gritty not because they need to be to lend more authenticity to the story, but because they bloody can’t help it, and it’s killing them. The series, jointly owned by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips (Mr. Staples is the colorist), has continued to be a love letter to film noir and a source of stirring character studies in its second “season.” But its most recent story, starring a crippled cartoonist and former forger who lost his wife and is drawn into a heist by an old acquaintance, pulled in a more ambitious direction, with the most complex plot, themes and characters to date. It should be noted that Mr. Brubaker wrote or co-wrote four monthly superhero series and a live-action show in 2008, and also launched Incognito, yet another creator-owned series with Mr. Phillips. We can only imagine what kind of work might be able to do if he took a few months off. (Marvel Comics/Icon, periodical)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Matt Hollingsworth, et al. Daredevil. Ninjas? Check. Femmes fatales? Check. Film noir influences? Check. Attorney Matt Murdock’s life in the meat grinder? Check. When Mr. Brubaker had just started writing the series, I asked him whether he could imagine a Daredevil apart from the approach Frank Miller brought to it. He was skeptical. “It's probably possible, but I don't think it's optimal,” he said. “Even before Frank Miller, Daredevil was turning into a fairly noir comic for a while, and since then, whenever it's gotten too far away from that aspect, it hasn't done too well.” It seems safe to say, then, that the book’s direction under Mr. Brubaker (who in 2008 had help from co-writer Greg Rucka on one four-part story), which is still very much beholden to the tone set by Mr. Miller and his collaborators in the 1980s, is no accident. But the reason why it’s nonetheless a fresh, exciting read is that Mr. Brubaker and company are beating Mr. Miller and company at their own game. In part, that’s because today’s Marvel comics aren’t bound to the rigid storytelling conventions and constrictions which were in place 25 years ago. It’s also because Mr. Brubaker and his artists – chiefly penciler Michael Lark, inker Stefano Gaudiano and colorist Matt Hollingsworth – have successfully fine-tuned and amplified the approach, however. The result is not as groundbreaking as it was back when Mr. Miller first introduced it, perhaps, but it’s no less impressive. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Joe Casey, Eric Canete, Dave Stewart and Comicraft. Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin. Unfortunately, my paperback edition of Enter the Mandarin, a new take on the first encounter between Iron Man and his archenemy the Mandarin, is on the other side of the Atlantic right now, and it’s been six months since I read it. While that means I can’t go into much detail, though, what I can say is that Joe Casey is one of the two writers who have been able to interest me in the character, in this book as well as in the 2006 miniseries Iron Man: The Inevitable. Casey’s Tony Stark knows what the future is going to be like – or thinks he does, anyway – and is driven by an obsession to get there as soon as we possibly can. All the superhero nonsense and the fisticuffs with the likes of the Mandarin, the Red Dynamo or the Living Laser are just a necessary evil to him, tedious distractions from the important stuff. Meanwhile, the artwork and colors by Messrs. Canete and Stewart, respectively, give you a good idea what the art of 1960s Iron Man penciler Don Heck might have looked like if he had been born 40 years later. (Marvel Comics, paperback)

* * *

Joe Casey, Tom Scioli, et al. Gødland. “My WIN-TECH TABLET is confounded!” the villain in Gødland #25 exclaims. “This was neither PLANNED nor PREDICTED! Who DARES interfere in my dominant eventualism–?!” What gets Mr. N’ull Pax Mizer’s extraterrestrial Über-Darwinist panties in a messy space bunch is, of course, the arrival of cosmically powered earthling Adam Archer, the hero of the series. N’ull Pax Mizer travels the cosmos in his crystal interstellar chariot to engineer evolution through conflict. This ruffles the feathers of Leviticus and his girlfriend Vayikra, who, in their own words, intend to “bring forth the Anti-Pillage!” The three Kirby-styled space gods proceed to deliver righteous smitings unto another, saying things like “My SERRATED SAIL delivers a brand new hymn!” or “Your celestial muscle provides a memorable thundershock” or “I will burn your OBITUARY into the barren face of the Great Space Rock!” or “Your hidden shame is a meal fit for my consumption!” Adam Archer, meanwhile, is just looking for his sister when he stumbles into this titanic tussle. Now, this is the only issue I have access to as I’m writing this, but that’s okay, because every issue is a little bit like this one. Gødland is a lot like Pro Wrestling, come to think of it, only the adversaries are mash-ups of every character Jack Kirby ever created taunting each other with lines you really do need to say out loud to believe them. In addition to being the unofficial sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I mean. (Image Comics, periodical)

* * *

Joe Casey, Andy Suriano, et al. Charlatan Ball. Rarely has a recap page been more succinct than that of Charlatan Ball #5: “Chuck’s in deep shite.” Chuck being Chuck Amok, a stage magician. The shite being an otherdimensional tournament between sorcerers to the death, to which Chuck’s been drafted without his consent and despite not having anything in the way of god-like powers of apocalyptic destruction, like the people he is to compete against. In fact, he’s a bit crap even when it comes to pulling white rabbits out of hats. Imagine Alice in Wonderland was created on LSD in the 1960s, with art by Jack Kirby. That’s the kind of rabbit hole Chuck disappears into, and ever since, he’s been bouncing around from one kadabraesque kung-fu klash to the next, ducking and running his way through dimensions so hellish that they make Detroit look like Disneyland. In other words, this is even more out-of-its-pants demented than Gødland. Artist Andy Suriano is quite a find, but more significantly, I’m not sure what I’d do without Joe Casey, at this stage. There’s nothing else quite like this, no one else quite like him, in comics. (Image Comics, periodical)

* * *

To be continued on Wednesday.

)* Which doesn’t mean I can’t link to them here, though, come to think of it. If you’re so inclined, I recommend tracking down copies of PlusPlus Comics, a lovely collection of experimental comics by young Swiss and German creators, and – as if you needed me to remind you – Manu Larcenet’s fantastic Le combat ordinaire, or Der alltägliche Kampf, or Ordinary Victories, in whichever language you happen to prefer.

Oh, and Dirk Schwieger’s insightful travel diary Moresukine came out in an American edition in 2008, too. Johanna Draper Carlson has a review.


Karl Ruben said...

I liked this a whole heck of a lot, especially since the way you succinctly described the most awesome aspects of my favourite pop comics of '08 leads me to believe that I'll rather enjoy the things you like that I haven't read yet. Or something like that.

Correction: it's femmes fatale (you got the first plural s right, the other one not).
Also (not a correction, more a suggestion): wouldn't a kung fu klatsch be better than a kung fu klash?

Anyway, stellar writing, I'll definitely keep reading this.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Thank you for the kind words, sir.

But, pardon my French, I beg to differ on the plural. The adjective has to be inflected as well, so I actually got that one right.

Good point on the klatsch, though.

Karl Ruben said...

Well, I obviously projected my own faked French skills on you - I just distinctly remembered someone lecturing me about culs de sac, films noir and femmes fatale, is all. He was probably just as clueless as me, though.